Why we should teach our teens to be self-compassionate rather than focus on their self-esteem
This article is a more digestible summary of a chapter from the book ‘Character Strength Development: Perspectives from Positive Psychology’ I co-authored this chapter along with Prof. Salome Divya Vijaykumar, Ranjitha Kumar, Avneet Kaur, Vibha Bhat, and Ritu Verma.
“In the face of failure and threat, what defines us as individuals is not the misfortune itself, but how we overcome threats to develop traits of love, empathy, and resilience.” — Excerpt from Character Strength Development: Perspectives from Positive Psychology
Multiple studies on positive psychology and personality psychology confirm that adolescents represent the most vulnerable of populations when it comes to resilience and self-image. In this regard, one of the more popular terms from social and positive psychology that has trickled down to common vernacular is self-esteem. While you would probably relate higher self-esteem with a better self-image and a much higher overall sense of wellbeing, this may prove to be a misconception according to positive psychology. Self-esteem is highly dependent on how an individual views themselves as perceived by others around them and may turn out to be counterproductive in promoting positive mental health.
This is what led Dr. Kristin Neff, a positive psychologist and associate professor at the University of Texas, to propose an alternate concept of self-compassion. According to her, self-compassion refers to accepting one’s suffering and flaws with a non-judgmental attitude; in other words, acknowledging that our flaws are a part of the human experience. It is different from self-esteem in that it is not based on self-evaluation but self-acceptance. This means whereas the degree of self-esteem is based on the extent to which one evaluates themselves positively, self-compassion is not contingent upon any judgment. When we become insecure and our self-esteem is threatened, it can activate our threat system and lead to anxiety, but self-compassion will counter this insecurity by promoting acceptance and activating the self-soothing system, which is associated with feelings of security. In this context, it is not difficult to see why promoting self-compassion over self-esteem in adolescents may yield greater benefits in terms of their mental health.
You may try to change in ways that allow you to be more healthy and happy, but this is done because you care about yourself, not because you are worthless or unacceptable as you are. Perhaps most importantly, having compassion for yourself means that you honor and accept your humanness. Things will not always go the way you want them to. You will encounter frustrations, losses will occur, you will make mistakes, bump up against your limitations, fall short of your ideals. This is the human condition, a reality shared by all of us. The more you open your heart to this reality instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and all your fellow humans in the experience of life. — Dr. Kristian Neff
We reviewed the VIA classification of character strengths, a common language of 24 character strengths that make up what’s best about our personalities. In general, these character strengths are causes of health lifespan development and provide a buffer against stress. When it comes to life satisfaction and psychological wellbeing, five of the twenty-four strengths are the most important: Gratitude, Zest, Hope, Curiosity, and Love. Adolescence is when these character strengths begin to crystallize, making this period critical.
Self-compassion can help in the development of these character strengths in adolescents. When compassionate to themselves, they will not only give themselves greater space to accept their mistakes but also identify less with negative emotions associated with self-evaluation. The internalization of compassion will then provide a base for the development of previously mentioned character strengths, the benefits of which will be manifested externally.
There is a huge range of external benefits that self-compassion can offer to a growing teen. Perhaps the most important of them is the promotion of a degree of social connectedness that can help overcome feelings of isolation and loneliness. These benefits have been linked to lower scores on depression measures as well. Individuals who have a higher self-compassion are also able to compromise more in relationships, be more authentic, and be more selfless. This is because self-compassion promotes feelings of forgiveness and empathy. Lastly, benefits also include a higher degree of altruistic behavior and lesser personal distress.
In sum, self-compassion can promote teens to connect meaningfully with themselves and with others. When we tell our teens to focus on accepting themselves, we are directing a change for the better in their personalities from the inside out, an inherently sustainable model. This focus is a good way to ensure healthy psychosocial development and promote a future society that is more empathetic. Eric Ericsson, the person who coined the term ‘identity crisis’ said, “The more you know yourself, the more patience you have for what you see in others.” Only if we are accepting of what we discover, will we have the patience to know ourselves.